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June 9, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 39

John L. Allen Jr.


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For Benedict XVI, less is more; Wednesday reflections on the church; The Auschwitz visit; The next battle in the war on relativism; The World Cup and prostitution; The struggle against corruption


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Journalists have a rather peculiar way of evaluating public figures. Like athletes, we want to be in the game, and that means covering someone who consistently makes news. That way our copy makes the front page, or our TV packages become the lead item on the nightly news.

Even reporters who didn't share his faith convictions, therefore, generally enjoyed covering Pope John Paul II, because he dominated the world's attention for more than a quarter-century. Some journalists made their careers as chroniclers of his life and papacy. Biographer Jonathan Kwitny once dubbed John Paul "the man of the century;" I suspect many in the Vatican press corps would add that he was "the story of the century" as well.

What became clear during Benedict XVI's May 25-28 trip to Poland, if it wasn't already, is that things are different under this pope.

Had it not been for the Auschwitz visit on Sunday, or Benedict's off-hand comment about the beatification of John Paul on Saturday, the visit might as well have taken place on the dark side of the moon as far as the interest level of most media agencies. The fact that Benedict attracts large and enthusiastic crowds both in Rome and on the road suggests he strikes a chord with his base. Yet he does not play to the press gallery, and he doesn't engage in sweeping gestures or sound-bite formulae, so he doesn't galvanize global attention.

Benedict XVI, in the language of the guild, is largely a pope for the inside pages.

In Poland, I found myself wondering if this "less is more" style could have ecclesiological consequences -- if Benedict's way of exercising the papacy, quite apart from any explicit teaching, could change the way we think about the pope.

To explore that question, I turned to Richard R. Gaillardetz, who holds the Margaret and Thomas Murray and James J. Bacik Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. Gaillardetz has written widely on ecclesiological topics, and is a popular speaker on these subjects.

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While recognizing that John Paul's visibility was an enormous asset in terms of his capacity to shape history, Gaillardetz argued that his superstar status was also, to some extent, "ecclesiologically problematic."

"It gave a prominence to the papacy that is in some ways 'extra-ecclesial,'" Gaillardetz said.

"The dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I (1869-70) said the papacy exists to serve the unity of faith and communion," he said. "Being a rock star is just not part of the job description. It adds a dimension that makes one uneasy; it's hard to know what the theological value of it is," he said.

"It attributes so much visibility to the papacy that it's difficult at the same time to accent collegiality and the legitimate authority of the bishop's office," Gaillardetz said. Under John Paul, he said, "periodic assertions of episcopal collegiality were overwhelmed in a sea of papal events."

Gaillardetz argued that the emergence of what some have called an "imperial papacy" in the late 19th and 20th centuries distorted the balance among various levels of authority. He cited Pastor Aeternus , which devoted four long chapters to the authority of the pope and just one brief paragraph to the bishops, as a classic example.

Gaillardetz said John Paul's commitment to evangelization helped explain his astonishing drive, as well as his reliance upon the tools of pop culture. Benedict, Gaillardetz said, comes off as more of a catechist, explicating the basics of the faith in more calm fashion.

"Benedict has no interest in spectacle, and for the most part that's positive," he said. "It may help restore a more healthy proportion."

"Benedict knows his theology, so he knows what the theology says about the papacy, how it must be rooted in the college of bishops," he said. "The papacy is not a fourth order in the sacrament of Holy Orders. He's a bishop, and with Benedict I think it will be easier to teach that."

On the other hand, Gaillardetz said, it is too early to say if this is merely a shift in style or also a matter of substance.

He said the four instruments of the activist papacy of the 20th century have been dramatic symbolic gestures (think John Paul II at the Western Wall in Jerusalem), encyclicals, bishops' appointments, and what he called the "aggressively interventionist practice of the Roman Curia."

Gaillardetz said there will obviously be fewer grand gestures under Benedict XVI, and to judge by the evidence of Deus caritas est , his encyclicals will be more catechetical rather than sweeping and speculative. To date, he said, Benedict has not made many significant appointments, but generally they have been "non-divisive personalities."

Yet Gaillardetz argued that what he termed the "interventionist practice on the part of the curia" continues apace. He offered three examples:

  • The November document on gay seminarians
  • A letter from Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, cracking down on liturgical practices in Chiapas in southern Mexico
  • Another letter from Arinze to Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, warning that liturgical translations not in accord with Roman rules cannot be approved

"I think this still adds up to a fairly aggressive exercise of papal authority," Gaillardetz said.

Gaillardetz also expressed reservations about the recent decision by Benedict XVI to drop the title "Patriarch of the West," which, he said, if anything amounts to a more sweeping assertion of papal authority over the entire church, East as well as West.

At the same time, Gaillardetz said, there are inklings that Benedict's stated commitment to collegiality is real. He pointed to rule changes at last October's Synod of Bishops that allowed free exchange, as well as openness to theological discussion on difficult subjects such as the use of condoms in the context of marriage to prevent HIV/AIDS.

Yet, Gaillardetz said, as long as the "refashioning" of the papacy unfolds largely on the level of style, its impact will be greatest in the wider world rather than inside the Catholic church, where he believes the mechanisms of strong papal governance remain largely intact.

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Obviously, not every ecclesiologist would add things up this way. A number of theologians today defend a strong papacy, not least as a bulwark against hostile governments (such as China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea) as well as from relativistic secular societies, especially in Western Europe and North America.

Moreover, there is a natural tendency to complain about papal authority only when decisions are not going one's way. Few center-left theologians objected to an "imperial papacy" when John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), or when Paul VI imposed progressive liturgical and disciplinary reforms in the post-conciliar years.

Most would at least agree, however, that how a pope exercises his office can influence the way Catholics, as well as the rest of the world, think about the papacy. Style and substance are not the same thing, but neither are they unrelated.

Recently Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the emeritus archbishop of Paris, argued during a Rome conference that the life of John Paul II constitutes a theological trope, a source of theological insight in its own right. In the same way, Benedict's papal style may well come to represent an ecclesiological trope, and one that could reconfigure the debate in unpredictable fashion.

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Speaking of ecclesiology, Benedict has chosen this spring to devote his catechesis during the Wednesday General Audience to reflections on the church. This Wednesday, he spoke about the role of Peter, and by extension the role of the pope.

Benedict pointed to three metaphors employed by Jesus to characterize the special role of Peter within the body of apostles: first, Peter is the "solid foundation" upon which the church is to be built; second, Peter will have the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; third, Peter has the power to bind or loosen, "in the sense that he will be able to establish or prohibit that which he retains necessary for the life of the church, which is Christ's and remains Christ's."

"It is always Christ's church, and not Peter's," Benedict emphasized.

Nonetheless, Benedict said that with these three metaphors, scripture presents with "great clarity" an understanding of the papacy "which later reflection will refer to as 'primary of jurisdiction.' "

Ecclesiologically speaking, "jurisdiction" is the magic word in this formula.

What it means is that the papacy is not merely a primus inter pares , a kind of honorary primacy within the College of Bishops. The pope is not the Patriarch of Constantinople. The papacy is, to use the language of the street, a "primacy with teeth," which possesses what the Code of Canon Law terms "supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the church."

As various Catholic theologians have put the point, traditional Catholic ecclesiology sees the pope as not merely primus inter pares , but primus super pares et partes , that is, "the first above equals and all parties."

Benedict goes on to say that this primacy is entrusted to Peter so that he may guide Christians to "universal communion" and to "charity in everyday life," rather than enjoying any sort of pomp and circumstance.

Yet Benedict's words on Wednesday indicate he remains fully committed to a robust, jurisdictional view of the papal role.

As is well known, the nature and extent of papal power remains the single most divisive issue in ecumenical dialogue, perhaps especially with the Orthodox, since Catholics and Orthodox otherwise share largely the same ministries, sacraments, and faith. As Fr. Adriano Garuti has shown in his 2000 book Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the Ecumenical Dialogue , despite reams of documentation from official ecumenical exchanges, there's little indication of fundamental shifts on either side; the Orthodox still hold a conciliar or synodal ecclesiology, in which there's really no room for a primacy of jurisdiction, while Catholics have a more "pontifical" ecclesiology in which the pope enjoys direct powers of governance.

In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint , John Paul II invited other Christian denominations into a "patient and fraternal dialogue" about new ways in which the Petrine office might be exercised, yet "without renouncing anything essential to its mission."

What Benedict's Wednesday reflection helps clarify is that, from his point of view, while the mode of exercising papal primacy can be discussed, the nature of that primacy is founded upon Christ's design for the church and cannot be altered. In the short run, at least, that probably makes ecumenical détente with the Orthodox even less likely.

Perhaps recognizing the point, Benedict closed his Wednesday reflection with a prayer that papal primacy "will be ever more recognized in its true meaning by the brothers still not in full communion with us."

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On the subject of Benedict's visit to Auschwitz, it is by now clear that in the Jewish world, the event drew mixed reviews. Some said that the pope's presence, all by itself, was significant at a time when the president of Iran has publicly questioned the Holocaust; others were moved by Benedict's somber, reverent tone, and his plaintive question of "Where was God?"

Other Jews, however, said the pope's speech left something to be desired. Benedict did not acknowledge any general Christian or German complicity in the Holocaust, claiming that Germans were "used and abused" by the Nazis; he did not say anything about contemporary anti-Semitism; and he reopened old wounds by praising Edith Stein and the Carmelite presence at Auschwitz.

Some compared the visit unfavorably with John Paul II's June 7, 1979, trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, widely remembered as an important turning point in Jewish-Christian relations.

The irony is that John Paul in 1979 said more or less the same things that got Benedict in trouble in 2006.

In his homily that day, John Paul did not acknowledge any generalized Christian involvement in the slaughter of Jews, nor did he say anything about the role of his fellow Poles; he did not refer to modern anti-Semitism; and he too invoked Edith Stein.

If anything, Benedict went farther in accommodating Jewish sensitivities, because rather than celebrating a Catholic Mass as John Paul did in 1979, Benedict opted for an inter-faith ceremony with significant Jewish participation. In so doing, he avoided triggering Jewish concerns about attempts to "Christianize" the Holocaust.

So why the praise for John Paul in 1979 from the Jewish world, and the mixed reviews for Benedict in 2006?

I've published a piece in the print edition of NCR this week exploring that question. (It will appear in the June 16 issue, which will be available online at mid-day June 16). The bottom line seems to be that in the succeeding 26 years, John Paul "raised the bar" in terms of Jewish expectations of popes. His visit to the Rome synagogue in 1986, the 1998 Vatican document "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," the pope's appearance at Yad Vashem and the Western Wall in 2000, all collectively created a new climate in which rhetoric that seemed pioneering in 1979 could be taken by some as disappointing in 2006.

On the other hand, most Jewish sources added two points.

First, they appreciate Benedict's insistence that by killing Jews, the Nazis meant to kill God, because it clearly signals the pope's conviction that God and the Jews enjoy a special relationship.

Second, they welcomed Benedict's Wednesday General Audience following the Auschwitz visit, in which he used the explicit language on anti-Semitism that some hoped for in his Auschwitz text: "Auschwitz must not be forgotten, and the other 'factories of death' in which the Nazi regime tried to eliminate God in order to take his place!" the pope said. "We must not cede to the temptation of racial hatred, which is at the origins of the worst forms of anti-Semitism!"

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Perhaps the biggest win for Benedict XVI against the "dictatorship of relativism" came in Italy last summer, when a strong push by the country's bishops, in tandem with lay activists, annulled a referendum that would have liberalized the country's restrictive law on in-vitro fertilization. (Opponents prevailed by persuading a majority of Italians to abstain from voting).

Now that victory seems in jeopardy, as Italy's new center-left government has announced plans to convene a "working group" on in-vitro fertilization, which critics fear will lead to precisely the outcome that could not be attained at the ballot box.

Italy once had no national legislation on in-vitro, which led to a reputation as the "Wild West" of artificial reproduction. Then, under the previous center-right government, Law 40 was adopted in 2004, which:

  • Limited in-vitro techniques to heterosexual couples, thus banning access for homosexuals and single mothers;
  • Stipulated that only three embryos may be created at a time, and they must be implanted, effectively banning cryogenic preservation;
  • Prohibited research on embryos;
  • Declared embryos holders of human rights.

Though church leaders say the law is not perfect, they found it far preferable to the previous vacuum. Officially, church teaching condemns in-vitro fertilization because it means that a human life comes into existence outside the conjugal act, and outside the womb. The process also usually involves masturbation, as well as the destruction of embryos.

Last week, the secretary of the Democrats of the Left, the largest party in the Italian governing coalition, announced his intention to create a working group to study the law. Critics of the restrictive law welcomed the move, while supporters, generally reflecting "Catholic" opinion, called it a distraction from more urgent matters of economics and foreign policy, as well as redundant in light of the recent referendum, when, they argued, the people had the chance to revisit the legislation and chose to do nothing.

The debate comes on the heels of another controversial initiative from the new leftist government, this one launched by University and Research Minister Fabio Mussi, who last week removed Italy's signature from a "declaration of ethics" signed by seven European Union nations objecting to the use of public funds for stem cell research.

The declaration had allowed the seven signatories to block any EU plans for funding such research; now, the six remaining nations lack the votes to do so. (They are Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland and Slovakia).

One leader of the center-right opposition charged this week that the new Italian coalition is shaping up in the mode of the Zapatero government in Spain, which has challenged the Catholic Church on a whole host of issues, and has become synonymous in Europe with secularizing and leftist politics.

Among other things, all this lends a special political subtext to Pope Benedict XVI's July 8-9 visit to Spain for the conclusion of a World Meeting of Families, where the pope is expected to challenge the "dictatorship of relativism" on its own turf.

The Italian news agency ANSA reported this week that Benedict will meet Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at the archbishop's residence in Valencia on July 8.

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The biggest sporting event on the planet, the World Cup, is set to open in Germany, and various sectors of the local economy are gearing up to accommodate the millions of fans, athletes and support staffs that will converge on the various sites of competition.

Not to be outdone, the German prostitution industry has announced that it too is expanding operations, opening special "houses of tolerance" in zones of the country where sex-for-hire is legal. On Wednesday, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, gave an interview to Vatican Radio warning that the World Cup may provide a significant boost to human trafficking in the sex trade.

"To use the language of soccer, I believe some 'red cards' need to be assigned to this industry, to its clients and to the public authorities who host the event," Marchetto said.

"Women become a product for purchase, whose cost is even lower than that for a ticket to one of the games," he said. "Over 40,000 women will enter into the circuit of prostitution during the World Cup, and many of them are forced to engage in this 'activity' against their will."

Marchetto said the church is trying to do what it can to cope with this "boom" for the sex business by assisting women who are the victims of trafficking.

"In Italy alone, there are more than 200 sisters involved in this pastoral field," he said. "Many religious congregations are already active in assisting these persons, seeking new ways to promote their dignity. In Germany, the church organization Solowodi ('Solidarity with Women in Need') is already active, with collaboration among 20 religious congregations."

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Marchetto said it's not enough to help women after the fact. It's also important, he said, to challenge the "consumers" in the sex business, and to teach young men a "healthy human sexuality."

Beyond that, Marchetto said, it's up to the German authorities to police the sex business aggressively during the World Cup.

Returning to a soccer metaphor, Marchetto said, "The ball is on their side of the field."

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By no means is corruption uniquely, or even primarily, a problem of the Third World, as the recent scandals surrounding Enron and Jack Abramoff remind us. Yet it has its most devastating consequences in places already struggling with chronic under-development and fragile social systems.

This by way of introduction to a conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in early June on the struggle against corruption.

Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, the council's secretary, told the conference that there is a strong negative correlation between corruption and economic growth, levels of human development, the functionality of democratic institutions and the struggle against social injustices.

Crepaldi said that while corruption is in part a problem for police, law enforcement and the judicial system, its roots must also be tackled. In that sense, he said, there's also an urgent need for anti-corruption instruction in schools, formation of consciences by churches and other social institutions, and a general sense of solidarity across the various divisions in society.

Speaking to roughly 80 experts who attended the Vatican conference, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said that his office will prepare a document on the best way to fight corruption, drawing upon the social doctrine of the Catholic church.

In the first place, Martino said, the phenomenon of corruption challenges our intelligence, because it must be studied carefully and understood properly before any plan of action will be effective. Second, he said, it challenges our will, because every layer of society has to make its contribution. Third, he said, it challenges the church, and the church must commit itself to the struggle.

"Winning the battle against corruption does not depend solely upon the church, which realistically recognizes that, given the way the 'mystery of evil' works in our history, [this battle] will always be with us," Martino said. "But the church will not give in to resignation; instead, it must continue to increase its commitment."

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The phenomenon of corruption, especially in the developing world, is indeed often more complex than it seems. I recently spoke with Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, president of both the Nigerian bishops' conference and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, on the subject.

Here was our exchange:

Let me play Devil's advocate for a moment. You've criticized American imperialism. Skeptics, however, might say that the United States could vanish from the world stage tomorrow, and until Africans can generate a better class of leaders -- people who aren't corrupt, with a sense of the common good -- your problems will continue.

Those who speak like this clearly don't understand the situation on the ground in these so-called "corrupt countries." The kind of corruption we have now was never possible when everything depended upon the tribe. It simply couldn't happen that a king could steal the money of his tribe and send it thousands of miles away to keep it for his family. African corruption would not have been possible without the cooperation of the very people who are now complaining about it!

Further, the West could help stop the corruption if it was a real concern. It's not possible that a young man from Nigeria can transfer a half-million dollars to deposit in a bank in any European country, and the regulatory authorities in that country aren't aware of it. They must know where this money came from. They track suspect transactions all the time, so why do they make an exception for stolen money from Africa? In the past the United States would tell us that banks are free, but with the War on Terror, they now track every cent coming into the country.

If the West stops doing business with corrupt governments, they will fall. Africans try to bring these governments down, but often they fail because the governments are sustained and upheld by foreign businesses who believe they can do better business with the corrupt leaders. Very often, those leaders are not interested in doing hard bargaining for the good of their people, but simply in lining their own pockets.

The fight against corruption is hindered from the outside. The reality is, we are not free. It's a myth to say that a poor, weak country is completely free to do whatever it likes. There are potentates who do whatever they like to their own people, and who follow instructions from the rich forces who sustain them. These powers from the outside world could have been deployed to help us get better governments, but it's not happening.

I'll give you an example. In 2003, we had elections in Nigeria. It was well done in some places, but a sham in others. …Yet less then a week later, the EU sent letters of congratulation to the people who had won these fraudulent elections. That was very disappointing. If the EU or the United States had insisted that we can't accept this election, we probably would have gotten something better. But the outside powers calculated that they were doing good business with these people. Often this sort of thing doesn't depend just on the ambassador. The major corporations, such as the oil companies, play a big role.

One positive element is that more and more people are alert about what's happening. The average young man and woman know this, and they're angry. I keep alerting the people in power that it's in our interest to sort this out, quickly and even painfully if needed, to avoid building up anger beyond remedy. Sadly, we're not seeing much of it.

In this situation, the church can't just keep quiet and wait for caritas to start cleaning the wounds, when we have a chance to prevent the wounds from being inflicted in the first place.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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